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After Her

After Her
Joyce Maynard

In her previous book Labor Day, Joyce Maynard did such a good job portraying ordinary people doing ordinary things in a really pretty bizzarre situation, and I was hoping for another book with that kind of pacing and tension. I was not disappointed! 
After Her is the story of two little girls, Farrah and Patty, the daughters of a policeman, during a time that encompasses the hunt for a dangerous serial killer.  The girls go about daily life- school, first crushes, playing basketball, wanting a dog- with murder looming onimously in thr background. Finally the girls fall into an encounter with the killer himself- or do they?
The biggest qualm I had with After Her is that it seemed like there were too many side story lines. To me, it was primarily about the dad and the women he loved; the sisters;  and a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a serial murderer.  But then there were all the neighbors, and dogs, and basketball, and all this stuff that was far more detailed then it needed to be. When the author stuck to the characters and themes at the center of the story, it was very good; but in the other sections, my interest wandered.
There was, however, one section that I loved unreservedly- just a few pages in which Joyce Maynard has written a reflection in Farrah’s voice about how strange and wonderful it is to be a 13-yeat old girl. I felt like that was just brilliant! That chapter and the next 50 or so pages felt like the heart of the book, and I came back to the book a second time just to read those pages again.

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Karen Joy Fowler

When Rosemary was just five, she lost her twin sister, Fern. Her mother collapsed into a deep depression. Her older brother Lowell spent more and more days away from home until he finally ran away. Her father never talked about Fern. As a college student, Rosemary is still struggling with the loss- trying to figure out who she is, and how she relates to people. Fern, tho, was not really Rosemary’s sister. Fern was a chimpanzee, and the girls- one human, one primate- were raised together as part of her father’s research.
The story about the girl and the chimpanzee is good. It raises some tough questions about human research on animals, and what it means to be human. But there are more layers to this book than just narrative.
We Are All asks big questions about language, meaning and communication. Did Fern learn to speak to humans, or did Rosemary learn to speak like a chimp? As a research subject, Rosemary’s voluble speech was interesting; without Fern, no one cared as much. In time she left more and more unsaid.
We Are All also brings up questions about family: what makes a family? What becomes of a family when members are taken away or leave? What do we owe to our siblings?

The ending (no spoilers here) is hopeful, if not exactly happy. It doesn’t seem to matter which language is spoken- human or chimpanzee- as long as we are communicating. In the end, our family are the ones who we can recognize as “same”- our red poker chips.

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You might like: Hurt Go Happy, Ginny Rorby

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The Girl You Left Behind

The Girl You Left Behind
Jojo Moyes

In German-occupied France during World War 1, Sophie is a young woman struggling to feed her family. Her husband, an artist, is fighting in the war. When Sophie catches the eye of the German commander, he arranges for her to serve meals to the occupying soldiers at her inn. This provides Sophie with access to food for her family. She also sneaks supplies to the sick and elderly in the village when she can. But the commander wants more from Sophie than a hot meal. He is especially intrigued with a portrait Sophie’s husband painted of her when they first fell in love. When Sophie finds out her husband has been captured and sent to prison camp, in desperation, she tries to bribe the commander. She offers the portrait; he takes her to bed. The people of the village turn on Sophie (in spite of the way she shared her stolen food) and she is dragged off to prison camp herself in disgrace. In some fever-addled part of her brain, Sophie imagines the commander has done this to reunite her with her husband.

In modern day England, Liv is a young woman struggling to make ends meet after the death of her husband, an architect. He has left her a masterpiece house to live in but she cannot even pay the taxes. Her most prized possession, tho, is a gift he bought on their honeymoon: a painting called The Girl You Left Behind. Through a series of chance encounters and questionable choices, Liv aquires a Goth roommate, Mo,  and a new boyfriend, Paul. Unfortunately, Paul works for an organization that helps people reaquire belongings that were looted from them in war. After a passionate night, Paul sees Liv’s painting and realizes it is the very piece of art he is supposed to be recovering. (The Girl You Left Behind is Sophie’s portrait, in case you didn’t get that yet.)

Lawsuits ensue. Liv digs herself deeper and deeper into debt in efforts to assert her claim on the painting. Needless to say, she and Paul cannoy speak to one another anymore. Heartbroken and broke, Liz tries desperately to hang on to memories of love. Will she keep the painting and get a new chance at love? Or will she, like Sophie, trade all that she has and still not get what she wants?

After the bestselling success of Jojo Moyes last book, Me Before You, several of her books have been reprinted (I think for the first time in America; they were published  in Britain before.) I was excited to read more from an author I liked. The Girl You Left Behind was not quite as good as Me Before You, but after all there is a reason I only have ten “Top 10” books a year. This one was still quite enjoyable and I look forward to picking up the rest of Jojo Moyes’ books.

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You might like: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Ford. Sarah’s Key by de Rosnay.

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Ghostman

Ghostman, Roger Hobbs

Jack is a ghostman. He is a career criminal who specializes in making people disappear. Not killing them, no, but helping criminals find new lives and identities to avoid getting caught. His speciality is bank robbers. Of course Jack himself disappears on a frequent and regular basis. Imagine his suprise to get a call from someone who knows his old alias- its Marcus.
Five years ago, Jack was on a team that Marcus hand-picked for an elaborate bank heist. It was Jack’s mistake that screwed up the plan, costing them not only a multi-million dollar payout, but cost some of the team their lives. Now, Marcus is back to collect his debt. He gets Jack involved in another scheme involving a casino robbery, a federal payload, and a drug lord known as The Wolf.
Ghostman alternates between the bank heist 5 years ago and the casino robbery in the present- equally interesting crimes involving numerous felons, hit men, wheelmen, jugmarkers, con men and even one FBI agent. A good thriller involves a very tight balance between action and characterization: too much plotting and introspection, and you no longer have a thriller; but make it all car chases and gun fights, and readers don’t care about your character. Roger Hobbs manages to get it right on the first try, writing a book that I gobbled in one sitting (staying up far too late of course) but which stuck in my mind for days after.
Ghostman has lots of violence, of course. Its not overly graphic (for the genre) but its very casual. People die all the time and no one really cares. I found that a little chilling- which of course fit the sociopathic character of Jack perfectly. I don’t do spoilers, but let me just say there is a scene of Russian Roulette that literally had me twitching with each pull of the trigger.
Ghostman had double-crosses to spare, and kept me guessing to the very last page- when, of course, Jack once again disappears.

You might like: Jeff Abbot, Owen Laukkanen.

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Five Days At Memorial

Five Days At Memorial
Sheri Fink

This is easily one of the best narrative nonfiction books I have ever read. It tells the story of what happened in one New Orleans hospital during Hurricaine Katrina, where doctors and other medical staff were accused of euthenizing patients. The book is divided into two sections. The first is an account of what happened in the hospital during the storm. The second recounts the legal process in the years afterward. Dr. Anna Pou, a doctor who was working in the hospital during Katrina, and later arrested, is a focal character. The author relies on the viewpoints of many different people to tell a necessarily complicated tale, but she has done an excellent job at weaving all the narrative threads together into one compelling story.
This is a good book but also a sad book. One of the things that astounded me page after page was the poor planning and communication at almost every level of disaster response. For example, most hospitals in New Orleans (including Memorial) had food and water stores as well as generators at or below the ground floor (below sea level.) Another example was the evacuation issue: the mayor ordered people to evacuate, but roads were clogged and not every one had cars. The hospital burecrats (off location) and government officials each assumed the other was responsible for removing hospital patients. Once evacuated, there was no plan in place for which hospitals would take in patients, or how they would get there. And of course no one knew how to prioritize: should the sickest patients leave first, or those with the best chances of surviving? 
Even in Memorial hospital, it seems that some basic knowledge and communication could have helped. The author clearly portrays the medical professionals who were there (some of whom chose to stay to care for the sick and dying) in a favorable light, as people who did often heroic things under the worst of circumstances. But it seemed that some of the circumstances didn’t have to be. I was particularly upset when I read that another building in the Memorial complex had electricity, but on-site administrators chose to hole up there, rather than bringing patients in where climate control and ventilators could’ve eliminated suffering and saved lives.
Sadly, we know what happened. The healthier patients and their families left first, leaving the very sick and terminal patients to suffer in the heat, darkness, and increasingly poor sanitation; without access to basic medical care like oxygen. At some point, at least one doctor made the descision to give these patients large doses of morphine and other drugs. Was the intent to alleviate suffering in patients truly believed to be dying? Or was it, in fact, to cause death in patients that might have lived?
A grand jury eventually found Dr. Anna Pou not guilty of murder for her role in administering the drugs. But the bigger issues remain unanswered. What accountability do doctors face in a disaster situation?  Who is responsible for crisis response? What should triage be when resources are limited?  And of course, what sort of care is acceptable at the end of life- where is the line between palliative care and euthanasia or assisted suicide??
There are no easy answers, and this author avoids the temptation to provide them. She tells a story, and raises the questions, and then the words stick with you long after the book is over.

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I received an Advance Reader’s Copy for this review. Covers often change before publication, but I hope this one does not, as the design is eye-catching and extremely fitting.

You might like: Columbine, Dave Cullen. Zeitoun, Dave Eggers.

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The Ghost Bride

The Ghost Bride
Yangsze Choo

Li Lan, a young Chinese woman in Malaysia, has few marriage prospects. Since her mother died, she has been raised by her amah (nanny) and her opium-addict father has been largely absent. There has been no one to arrange a marriage for Li Lan, although she has entertained dreams of a new, modern love match. Understandably, Li Lan is shocked when her father tells her the Lim family has approached him about making her a “ghost bride” to their dead son. She would be married to the dead son and then live her life in the Lim household as a widow, without ever getting to be a wife.
When, on a preliminary visit to the Lim house, Li Lan meets a handsome servant man, I thought, “I know where this is going.” Turns out I underestimated the author.
Yangsze Choo has written a novel that rises above the usual tales of unhappily arranged marriage and ill-fated love matches. Li Lan journeys to the spirit world, where she discovers that her marriage prospects are far more complicated than she ever imagined.
I have read more than a few novels set in Chinese culture, not only past and present but also largely fictional. This is one of the best. The writing reminded me of the late, great Pearl S. Buck. Was it the vivid descriptions of sights, smells and tastes in both this world and the next? Was it the carefully drawn unspooling of intrigue involving players living and dead alive? Was it the character of Li Lan herself on her inner journey from naivete to choosing love? Maybe it was all of that; regardless, I’m a fan.

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You might like: Pearl of China, Anchee Min. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See. Saving Fish from Drowning, Amy Tan. Pavilion of Women, Pearl S. Buck

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The English Girl

The English Girl
Daniel Silva

Do you like spy thrillers, but feel they lack culture? Do you ever wish your spy characters were skilled in music and art as well as clandestine intrigue and killing? It’s time to start reading Daniel Silva’s spy thrillers starring Gabriel Allon, master art restorer/forger and Israeli assassin/spy!
The English Girl is the 16th Gabriel Allon now, but Silva does a good job filling in key elements of the backstory in a few lines. This novel starts with a kidnapping for ransom, gets tangled up with the Corsican mafia, spends a while with a complicated secret identity scheme, and ends with a massive twist! The Russians get to be the “bad guys” in this one, giving it a very classic spy novel feel.
The “spy” aspect of Daniel Silva’s writing- the classic tradecraft, political wrangling and double-crosses- brings to mind LeCarre, but with a little more killing and fewer tedious descriptions of blind drops and old men talking. The “thriller” side of his writing- the car chases, assassins, and twists- reminds me of Ludlum, with more reliance on fellow spies and more finessed kills. Gabriel Allon is a character of depth and experience. The recurring supporting cast in the stories is well drawn, especially Allon’s mentor Ari Shamron.
After years of coaxing and scheming, it seems like Shamron might finally have talked Allon into becoming chief of “The Office.” Allon is getting older, and there are developments in his personal life that might keep him closer to home, so I can imagine that Silva might  finally write him in to that role. However, I’m sure circumstances would require his presence on the field of operations often enough to keep things interesting.
It doesn’t really matter if you’ve always wanted to read about an art restorer spy assassin or not. If you want to read a spy novel at all, you should be reading Daniel Silva’s books. He is one of the best- if not the best- out there.

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You might like: (authors rather specific titles): Olen Steinhauer, Alan Furst